College basketball: A chat with Mark Hollis, chair of the 2016-17 selection committee
So you’d like to visit the home of this year’s chair of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee. Pick a night, any night. Your host is Mark Hollis.
“If you walk in the house, there’s about three different TVs, and generally there’ll be three different games on,” he said. “They kind of capture your attention. It’s good to have that score thing you can put up on the side and be able to jump from game to game.
“The great thing is, I have a son and daughter that love basketball, so it’s actually family time while watching games, and my family members aren’t afraid to share their opinions.”
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Selection Sunday might seem eons away, but it’s not. That will be crunch time for Hollis’ committee, where nearly every decision made — every team omitted from the NCAA tournament or seeded in it — will be scrutinized and debated. Landmines everywhere. It is when a searing spotlight shines on the group, as teams and public wait for the brackets from the selection room, like a court waits for a verdict from the jury room.
But now is when a lot of the work starts to get accomplished.
Each committee member is keeping close track of assigned conferences — “They’re in constant communication with the league offices,” Hollis mentioned — to report to the group at-large, starting in January. Each member is also in a bracket quadrant, some paying particular attention to the top teams as potential high seeds, others with their eyes on the bubble. Regional advisory committees of coaches are regularly heard from.
The games go by, the information flows in, unceasing, detailed and exhaustive.
“In the end, every committee member is watching a significant chunk of games, everybody deals with it in a little different way, and that’s why there’s a committee,” Hollis said.
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, but Hollis already hears the ticking clock of March. Michigan State’s athletic director is in his fifth year on the committee, but his one and only as chair. He will be on the road maybe 100 days by the end of the season. He is currently watching at least parts of 20 games a week, some in person, some live on television, some reviewed on Synergy, where at least he can zip by the commercials.
So now might be a good time to lob a few questions.
This year is kind of different, huh?
“When you get in that chair role, you have to remember you have a full-time job, this is a volunteer job. You have to remember you have a family. But you also want to put everything into your chair year on the committee, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
So how important are these months?
“It’s so critical that when you get to selection week, the homework’s been done, you feel comfortable that every committee member has done their due diligence in the process and you can make effective decisions. One of the things that’s the most frustrating is the perception that you go there and you spend five, six days and make decisions. Most all the work is done well before any of those committee members get to the selection room. It’s doing your homework and then coming in. It’s more like a final exam.”
Watching a game, what’s to look for?
“Over four years [as a committee member], you learn how to watch games that are going to help you in the room talk about teams beyond the numbers. There’s not really a scientific formula for watching injuries, but you can tell if a team is playing different with certain guys, and without. You’re looking at flow of games, if a team goes out and schedules, or the conference schedules a really tough stretch for them. You want to see how they get through that stretch, knowing that it could have some wear and tear. You’re looking at neutral site games, you’re looking at road games. You’re watching how road teams perform probably with a little bit more focus than the home team, just to get a sense of how they battle in adversity.”
Any favorite games so far?
“Kentucky-UCLA, it’s not one team won or one team lost, but it was a fun game to watch. Michigan-UCLA, just from a standpoint of scoring and an incredible shooting display. Kentucky-North Carolina in Las Vegas. From a committee perspective, these neutral-site games provide many points of reference on discerning the differences between teams. I enjoy games that are in a tournament atmosphere, so the Champions Classic with us and Kentucky and Duke and Kansas. Our game [Michigan State’s 69-48 loss to Kentucky] wasn’t so much fun to watch for a couple of reasons.”
A hundred days on the road seems like a lot, right?
“It’s not because you want to be there. It’s because you want to do a good job, you want to make good decisions, knowing that you’re not going to make everyone happy. You have to be comfortable that you’ve done your homework, you’ve watched the games, you’ve looked at the data, you’ve taken into account almost every variable that you can imagine.”
Ever grow weary of the sport?
“As Jud’s old manager, you never get tired of watching basketball.”
That’d be the more than 30 years ago, working for Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote. So what's the harder job, committee member or student manager?
“Being a manager for Jud. The work I did for Jud was unbelievable preparation some three decades later to do this job. It’s being prepared for everything. It’s anticipating. I would argue that being a manager for a basketball team anywhere in the country, blended with your academics in the classroom, is the highest level of preparation. It’s great to see so many managers out there in my profession and beyond that have been extremely successful. I think a lot of it comes from what coaches instill in you.”
What’s the best advice past chairs have offered so far?
“Probably pace yourself, which I’m terrible at. To understand it’s a long year.”
How hard is that to do?
“It’s not so much watching the games, it’s just the intensity that you place upon yourself in order to ensure that in January, in February, in March, you are prepared to come up with some decisions that are going to be extremely important. It’s not rocket science. I’ve got friends who are unbelievable surgeons and their jobs are so much more important than what we’re doing. But you also know that you’re impacting a lot of people, a lot of families, a lot of people who are in the business as coaches, and you want to do a good job.”
Last thing, any thoughts on the season in general after one month?
“Last year, it seemed like there was much more uncertainty in the game, a lot more wackiness. That can still develop, obviously, this year. But there seems to be some semblance of order, I guess, which is a little scary and frightening for me right now. Of my four years, last year was by far the most challenging season to go through and then go into the selection room. Right now, things feel a little bit more comfortable. But as we turn around the first of the year and get into conference play, I think the wackiness will inherently come into it. You want to have some challenges in this process, you want the excitement that college basketball can deliver. But it just seems a little bit calmer this year.”
It'll be interesting to see if Mark Hollis is saying that in February.